Notebook: Format And Anxiety

Notebook: Format And Anxiety

I don’t much look at the movies, television, or the other popular arts covered by Show magazine. About once a year my wife and I go to a movie to see what that is like. Occasionally, if I am immured alone with a TV set, I switch it on.

Last fall I was at a hotel in Galesburg, Illinois, where I was to give a speech at Knox College, and I switched on the TV before going to bed. It was Jack Paar, of whom I had heard; and his guest was Max Lerner, the historian and journalist. What I saw astonished and enraged me. Max is, in my opinion, wrong-headed and boring, but he is (sentimentally) earnest; yet he was treated by Paar and the format of the show with a disregard bordering on contempt. At one point Max, obviously disturbed, was discussing the necessity of forgiving Germany because of the needs of the Cold War, when suddenly Paar cut him off to hold up a silk stocking and make a pitch. Interrupted, Max made a pitiable face and my heart went out to him. This recalled to me many previous moments of disgust and indignation when we would be listening to terrible radio reports about the invasion of Hungary or a crisis in the United Nations, and they would be interrupted by a jingling commercial beneath the dignity of a grown man to write or speak. How in such a case can the Americans make sense of the news, follow a train of thought, or indeed retain any notion of the reality of the world? … Jack Paar switched to a gentleman who did card tricks, and I switched off the set.

Next morning, putting aside my notes, I described to the community at Knox the Jack Paar show of the night before, which some of them had watched. To my surprise this had an extraordinary effect. Many were as if stunned. And in subsequent conversations I came to realize, what would never have occurred to me, that most people do not notice the actuality, what is really present, on their TV screens. They simply go along with the formats that stop thought and prevent feeling. They take the baseness and absurdity of the human figures for granted, and cease to notice them. This explains the puzzling double standard that obtains, how ordinary intelligent people are not overcome by rage and nausea. The audience is not there in any present or esthetic way. They are perhaps carrying on an unconscious revery; or they are being sketchily reminded of the various symbols of American society and reliving their own psychosexual pathology (this is Parker Tyler’s theory of the movies). The more sophisticated, accepting the format and the devaluation of persons implied in it, discuss whether it is well or poorly done for what it is. This is the usual hip criticism of “popular culture.” Obviously, such responses are disastrous to any use of this serviceable medium as communication, or to this audience ever having a thoughtful or artistic experience. (In an art-work there is no format and less and less is taken for granted.) If this is indeed the general si...